AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm sorry for the delay in this chapter! My excuses are actually better than normal: I moved across the country, I had a baby, and there's a global pandemic. I also am deep in editing my fourth draft of my original novel, and I don't think I can stand to look at that story one more time, so this was a very nice palate cleanser. I hope this chapter's alright-I wrote it kind of fast and didn't edit too much because, as I said, I AM SICK OF EDITING.
"Cassia, let's go get lunch together."
Cassia looked up from her breakfast at Shepard across the table, her expression open and only a little confused. "Today?"
"Can I come too?" Jun said, bouncing up on his seat.
Shepard shook her head. "Jun, you have that birthday party for your friend Priya, remember?"
Jun's face fell… then brightened again. "Oh yeah! I got her an awesome gift!"
Shepard nodded, smiling at Jun's perpetual enthusiasm, then looked back at Cassia.
"So? What do you think? There's a new place on the Presidium that specializes in colonial turian cuisine," Shepard said.
Cassia shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"
Together Cassia and Shepard dropped Jun off at his birthday party, then took the rapid transit over to the Presidium. They didn't talk much as the train whirred past the artificial lighting of the Citadel, but the silence was companionable. Shepard took comfort in that. Whatever happened next, her relationship with Cassia had developed to a point that they could share that comfortable, easy space together reserved for family. Whether Cassia called her "Mom" or not, Shepard knew that she and Cassia were family. That knowledge would help her do what she needed to do.
They got off at the main hub for the Zakera ward, and Shepard picked up a quick sandwich before leading Cassia to the restaurant that Garrus guaranteed her was the best place to get turian food on the station. Normally the Shepard-Fedissians found establishments that could serve both levo and dextro meals, but the very best turian restaurants tended to be specialty places and didn't serve levo food. The same was true for the best human restaurants too.
Cassia's excitement for the restaurant had grown as they'd made their way there, and by the time she started looking over the menu she was glowing.
"Garrus said this was the best place on the Citadel for truat," Shepard said.
Cassia's eyes widened. "I'll order that then!"
Cassia's food came in just a few minutes, and she dug in immediately. She was so eager that Shepard decided to eat her sandwich in silence while Cassia focused entirely on her food. Shepard didn't want to interrupt what was clearly a moment for her young turian daughter. Eventually, Cassia looked up from her plate, her truat over 80% done, and leaned back into the cushy seats of the booth, her mandibles lazily flapping in satisfaction.
"That is easily the best truat I've ever had. Better than anything mom ever made."
"Was your mom a good cook?" Shepard asked.
"Yeah! And I mean she was actually good, not like how everyone thinks their mom makes good food. She could have been a chef if she wanted."
"And this place's truat is even better than hers? That's a high compliment."
"It is," Cassia said, nodding her head soberly.
Shepard set the remains of her sandwich down on the plate the restaurant had kindly provided for her and looked across the table at Cassia, her smile fading as she considered the young turian and how she might introduce the inevitable topic of conversation. She'd thought it over in her head a million times, but none of her plans felt quite right. Cassia's mandibles settled and she looked back at Shepard, brow plates tilting in concern.
"Shepard? What's going on? I mean, thank you for bringing me here and everything," she said, gesturing to the restaurant around them, "but it feels like… I dunno, like you're about to tell me that Jun is sick or something."
Shepard shook her head quickly. "Oh no, no no, nothing like that. I do have some news, but it's… good news. I promise."
Cassia's brow plates raised skeptically.
"Yeah, that's exactly what everyone with good news sounds like," said with her newly-developed teenage sarcasm.
Shepard couldn't help but laugh.
"Ok, you've got me. I was trying to figure out the best way to say this, but I guess I'll just come out with it," Shepard said, her burst of humor dying. She forced her next words out as soberly as she could manage. "Your Uncle Maxis and Aunt Belana contacted the hierarchy recently. We hadn't been able to reach them before because their system was out of contact with the hierarchy, but as soon as they were able to get in touch, they reached out, asking about you."
Cassia's expression cleared of all her typical tells, and Shepard had no idea what to make of the blank slate sitting across the table from her. The silence between the two stretched for many long seconds, and Shepard fiddled nervously with her hands, forcing herself to wait for Cassia to say something first.
"So… I'm going to be able to see my uncle and aunt? That's nice. I don't remember them super well but I'd like to see them," Cassia said eventually.
Finally some emotion showed on her face, though her upturned brow plates only revealed confusion.
"Yeah, I thought so too. They're actually here, on the Citadel. If you want, you can see them as soon as this weekend."
Cassia nodded slowly, though her expression remained confused.
"Yeah, I'd like that," she said evenly. She paused a moment, then fixed Shepard with a hard stare. "Of course I'd like to see them, but… It feels like there's something I'm missing. Why is this such a big deal? Do you not want me to see them?"
Shepard shook her head. "No, I've already met them and they seem great. I don't have any problem with you seeing them."
"Then what's wrong?"
Shepard sighed and braced herself. She should have known that she'd need to spell all this out for Cassia.
"They… they told the hierarchy, and me, that they were interested in becoming your guardians. They're planning on returning to their system in a few months, and they want to take you with them. As a member of their family."
"Oh…" Cassia's voice became incredibly small, and as the confusion drained from her face, she looked down at her plate of truat.
"You don't have to go, not if you don't want to," Shepard said quickly, not wanting her to jump to any conclusions.
"But you're saying I can? If I want to?"
Shepard grimaced, looking down at her plate and noting how different her rye sandwich looked from the purple-y mass of truat on Cassia's side of the table. Her frown deepened.
"I think… I think we should take things one step at a time. I don't want to put such a big question on your shoulders alone, so we'll just start with getting to know your uncle and aunt. You need to know what being in their family would be like—what it would mean. Then when the time is closer, we can talk about what you want to do next."
Cassia nodded again, the motion appearing too regular and robotic. Her small pupils avoided Shepard, searching her surroundings for some kind of anchor as she processed the new information.
"No matter what, Cassia…" Shepard started, groping for the words that would express what she desperately needed her to know, "Whatever happens, know that I'll always want you. As long as you want it, there will always be a place for you in this family."
Cassia's eyes finally focused on Shepard, and her mandibles widened in a weak smile.
S: I told her.
G: Shit. How did it go?
S: Alright, I guess. About as well as could be expected.
G: Is she excited? Upset?
S: Mostly just overwhelmed I think. I don't think she knows how she feels yet.
G: Well, it sounds like it could have been worse… Is she going to see them this weekend?
S: Yeah, we planned to go over to their place for dinner.
G: Hm. Got it. Well keep me posted. If you want.
S: Will do.
G: It's going to be alright, Shepard. Whatever is decided will be what's best for Cassia, and it's going to be alright.
S: Thanks Garrus.
Cassia liked Maxis and Belana. She'd known them before, of course, but it had been awhile, and she'd never spent much time with them in her younger years. Now, though, she seemed to find in them a comfort and familiarity that brought a new buoyancy and confidence to her step. It left Shepard feeling both pleased at her improved mood and incredibly sad that she herself hadn't been able to provide it.
For the first few meetings Shepard tagged along, chaperoning and taking mental notes on how the Fedissians interacted with Cassia—how they might treat her if she were to leave with them. She saw minor things that her mind immediately blew up into world-ending problems—there were small indulgences the Fedissians granted Cassia that Shepard wouldn't risk and a sharpness of tone at times that she didn't approve of. But after each meeting, Shepard would regroup with Garrus and play it back to him, separating out her observations into legitimate concerns versus anxious overreactions. Garrus provided an excellent sounding board, helping her work out her own thoughts and feelings without injecting too much of his own opinions. At the end of the day, the conclusion was unavoidable: the Fedissians would be perfectly adequate guardians to Cassia, if that was what she chose.
After a few weeks of tentative meetings Garrus went on shore leave and Shepard stopped monitoring every second Cassia spent with her uncle and aunt. Things returned to a new normal and Cassia began spending time with the Fedissians by herself. Cassia and her uncle and aunt saw the latest Blasto film, tried out new turian restaurants, and spectated an Armax Arena match. They also started doing more mundane things: watching Cassia while she worked on her homework, taking her grocery shopping, cleaning their house together. Slowly but surely, Cassia was becoming a real part of their family, and Shepard made it clear that it was up to her if she wanted that to be a permanent arrangement.
Each day when Cassia came home, Shepard braced herself to hear those fateful words: I've decided who I'm going to stay with. A month passed, but Cassia had yet to speak them. Shepard was tempted to give Cassia a timeline, if only for Shepard's own sake. This torture would be more bearable if she knew when it would end. But Shepard knew she couldn't do that. Cassia needed to be able to make the decision without any kind of pressure. Shepard would never forgive herself if Cassia ended up making a decision she regretted because she'd been rushed.
Shepard tried to look at it as an opportunity to spend more one-on-one time with Jun, but every time she thought that, her throat closed up at the thought that it might be just her and Jun from here on out.
One weekend morning Jun walked into the kitchen only to find Shepard crying over a frying pan full of eggs. Cassia had spent the night with the Fedissians, and it was obvious why Shepard was crying.
"Mom, don't cry!" Jun said, nestling under her arm and hugging her from the side.
Shepard rubbed her eyes with her wrists and moved the frying pan off the burner to avoid ruining their breakfast. She ruffled Jun's hair and shook her head. It shouldn't be her nine-year-old's job to comfort her. She should be shielding Jun from her problems, should comfort and reassure him that he would stay a loved member of their family no matter what. Choking back another sob, she sunk to her knees and hugged Jun to her.
"I'm sorry, Junie. I didn't mean to upset you," she said.
"Don't worry, mom. Cassia's going to stay with us," he said, with the confidence only a boy his age could muster.
"You're probably right," Shepard said, trying to believe herself.
Wanting to distract Jun from her moment of weakness, Shepard took Jun to the astro museum in the Kithoi Ward and spent the rest of the day looking at spaceships. Jun babbled over his favorite models, reciting top speeds and weapons capabilities, and for a few hours even Shepard was able to forget her worries.
Shepard expected Cassia to be home by the time she and Jun got back in the evening, but she wasn't there. Shepard cooked a dextro-friendly meal for Cassia anyway, packing it away in the fridge for her when Jun and Shepard finished their levo meal and Cassia still hadn't appeared. Trying to shake off her displeasure, Shepard settled Jun and herself in for a relaxing movie night. Halfway through Teenage Ninja Kwanzaa Force 4: Revenge of the Teens Shepard was this close to calling in a special forces task force to bring Cassia home. She was spared this extremity when Cassia walked into the living room, offering a quick goodnight to Shepard and Jun and heading straight for her room.
"Cassia, wait a second" Shepard said.
Cassia turned on her taloned heal and faced Shepard, a decidedly-teenaged sigh escaping her mouth plates. "Yes?"
"It's still fifteen minutes before my curfew."
"If you're going to cut it this close just let me know first, alright?"
Cassia rolled her eyes, and Shepard wondered if that was a normal turian gesture, or if she'd picked it up from living with Jun and Shepard.
"Fine. I'll let you know next time," Cassia said.
"You're going out with the Fedissians again tomorrow?" Shepard asked.
"Yeah. They're taking me to the Armax Arena."
"What time will you be home?"
"Earlier. I'll be back before dinner."
Shepard nodded her approval, and Cassia turned back to her room.
"Hey Cas?" Jun said, halting her retreat. "When are you going to tell the Fedissians that you're not going with them? I think you might be getting their hopes up."
Cassia froze in her tracks, her back to Shepard and Jun. The tension in her crest was visible, and the silence stretched for what felt like forever.
"Jun, we're giving Cassia time to decide," Shepard said, fighting to keep down the lump in her throat.
"But what is there to decide? We're a family."
Cassia turned around, her face plates expressionless. She didn't seem to know what to say.
"Yes, we're a family," Shepard said as calmly as she could manage. "And we'll always be a family. But the Fedissians are also Cassia's family, and there's nothing wrong with her spending time with them. Even living with them, if that's what she wants."
Jun frowned, his dark eyebrows knitting together in a rare display of displeasure. "That's stupid, Cas. You should just tell them you're staying with us."
"Jun, she hasn't decided yet. End of discussion," Shepard said.
"I said end of discussion."
The room fell silent again, and Cassia shifted from one foot to the other.
"I'm going to sleep…" Cassia said eventually, then turned and went to her room.
Jun hunched over on the couch, his arms folded tightly across his stomach. Shepard turned back to the TV, silently watching the end of the movie they'd been ignoring since Cassia's return. She didn't absorb any of it, which was fine. It was nonsense anyway.
"Mom?" Jun said, voice quiet. "Is Cassia really going to leave us?"
Shepard screwed her eyes shut and shook her head. "I don't know."
G: Hey Shepard, I got a message from Cassia saying she wants to talk to me, one-on-one. Just wanted to check with you if it's ok. I can take her out for lunch or something next time I'm on the Citadel.
S: Oh. Did she say what she wanted to talk about?
G: No, but I assumed it's about her uncle and aunt. Would you rather I leave it to you? Or talk with her when you're there?
S: No, it's probably good for her to talk to someone she trusts who's neutral.
G: Shepard, I may not be directly involved, but I'm definitely not neutral.
S: You're not?
G: Of course not. You and the crew of the Normandy were the best family I've ever had. Why wouldn't I want that for Cassia?
S: Thanks Garrus. That means a lot.
G: It's the truth.
S: Well anyway, you have my permission to talk to Cassia next time you're on the Citadel.
G: Great. I'll make plans for next week then.
S: You'll be back next week?
G: Yep. Taking some time off for Solana's birthday.
S: Just how much shore leave do you get?
G: Being a Spectre has its perks.
S: Really? The only perks I got as a Spectre were busting my ass trying to save the galaxy and a few shiny medals.
G: Timing is everything.
Garrus and Cassia set up their meeting, and the whole week leading up to it Shepard was on pins and needles. She and Garrus agreed that Cassia would need privacy, so Garrus didn't tell Shepard what he planned to say and wouldn't be discussing what Cassia had said afterwards. It was a special brand of torture Shepard was only willing to put herself through for the sake of her kids.
The night Csasia came home from her meal with Garrus she looked thoughtful, but her expression betrayed nothing of what she was thinking. Shepard asked how lunch was, and all Cassia would respond with was a noncommittal "Good."
After putting Jun and Cassia to bed, Shepard couldn't resist sending a quick message on her omnitool.
S: How did it go?
Garrus responded almost immediately.
G: Good, I think.
S: You think?
S: I know, I know. I said I wouldn't pry. I'm just going crazy here.
G: I know. But try not to worry. Cassia's a smart girl, and she'll be alright no matter what.
S: Try not to worry? Hah!
G: An impossible task, I know. But that's always what you've been good at.
The next day Cassia spent entirely with the Fedissians. Shepard didn't get the whole itinerary, but she understood they'd be going shopping, visiting a war memorial where some of their family was honored, and searching for more authentic turian food. Shepard and Jun did their best to busy themselves throughout the day, but as the night cycle turned the lights of their neighborhood dark, Cassia sent a message that she'd be home a few hours past curfew.
After confirming with the Fedissians that nothing was amiss. Shepard sent Jun to bed then settled in on the couch for the traditional parental vigil. As she watched reruns of the serialized spinoff of Fleet and Flotilla, she wondered idly if this would be the only time she'd get to stay up fretting over a teenaged Cassia or not.
Cassia arrived home a few hours later, her arms full of shopping bags and a distressed look on her face. As soon as Shepard saw her fluttering mandibles, she knew her daughter had made her decision. Locking eyes with Shepard, Cassia set her bags down by the door and walked slowly over to the couch.
Shepard turned off the show and sucked in a deep breath of air, bracing herself before shifting in her seat to face Cassia. Cassia sat down on the couch next to Shepard on the portion of the sectional designed for a turian body. Cassia looked almost ill, and Shepard told herself she wouldn't cry.
"How was your day?" Shepard asked, figuring if she started talking first it might make things easier for Cassia.
"Fine…." Cassia trailed off, and they both sat there in silence for several long moments. Cassia shook her head and leaned back into the couch like she was sitting in a too-fast skycar.
"Mom?" Cassia said, turning to Shepard again.
Shepard's eyebrows rose, and she wanted to say something in response but didn't know what to say.
"Mom..." Cassia said again, like she was testing how the word felt on her tongue. "I told Uncle Maxis and Aunt Belana that I wouldn't be staying with them."
It felt like the cybernetics holding together Shepard's heart all short circuited at once. Her eyes widened, and after a short delay she started to cry in spite of her earlier commitment to herself.
"Really?" Shepard choked out.
Cassia squirmed on the couch, her mandibles fluttering rapidly in a gesture Shepard thought of as the turian equivalent of tears.
"Is that ok?" Cassia asked. "I know I made you wait a long time."
"Oh, honey," Shepard said, rushing over to Cassia and gathering her up in her arms. "It's more than ok."